Family Travels: Vietnam

Friday, 23 January 2009

Travelers: Australians Lachlan and Johanna Jackson and their daughter Siena (2), along with friends Tamara and Peter Sharp and their son Harry (2). Both children were 18 months old during the trip. Lachlan is a lawyer and Johanna runs BabyGro, which sells baby products normally unavailable in Beijing (http://www.babygro.com.cn/).

Destination: Vietnam

The Plan: Having traveled to Vietnam before, the Jacksons longed to see Hanoi and Halong Bay. They added Sapa to the list, making it an eight day trip.

The city: The families loved cruising Hanoi on foot – they strolled around Hoan Kiem lake and explored the maze of 1000-year-old streets in the Old Quarter, with its throng of art galleries and handicraft shops. The kids loved the grounds of the serenely divine Temple of Literature (Van Mieu), a university where Confucian scholars once studied. These well-behaved tots even visited the austere Mausoleum housing the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. Think twice about taking small kids to see Uncle Ho – complete silence and reverence is expected. Another option with littlies is to visit Uncle Ho’s Yellow House (1 Bach Thao, Ba Dinh, tel +84 4 234 760). Alongside is a fishing pond where kids can summon fish by clapping!

Best city fun: Hanoi Zoo (http://www.hanoizoo.com/) sits on a beautifully landscaped lake and has an impressive array of big cats and monkeys. To cool down, head to Hanoi’s Ho Tay Lake Water Park for slides, tube rides, a wave making pool and splashy areas for kids from baby to teen (tel +84 4 753 2753, 9am-9pm). For more wet fun, see a traditional water puppet show (mua roi nuoc) on Hoam Kiem lake. The shows include traditional Vietnamese instruments and folk songs (http://www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org/). Make sure you book tickets days in advance, as they sell out quickly.

Older kids would enjoy a visit to the Military History Museum (tel +84 4 733 4682, 8am-11.30am/1pm-4.30pm, US$1.25) or the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison, tel +84 4 824 6358, Tue-Sun 8am-4.30pm, 65 cents) where US presidential candidate Senator John McCain was held prisoner during the Vietnam war.

Sleepy time: The families booked a three bedroom apartment at the Somerset Grand over the internet (http://www.somerset.com/ and search Hanoi). This cost-effective option is Hanoi-central and easily fit both families, plus the Sharp’s ayi. The Halong Bay junk experience was one the family will never forget, and for Sapa the family booked the luscious Victoria Sapa Resort (http://www.victoriahotels-asia.com/ and search Sapa), right near the top of Vietnam’s Fansipan mountain. The stunning resort is decorated with costumes and d├ęcor typical of the region’s colorful ethnic tribes.

The bay: There are many tour operators offering overnight junk stays on Halong Bay; you can book online or wait until you arrive in Hanoi. There are varying degrees of luxury but all provide a quintessential Vietnam experience. The Jacksons cruised in style through http://www.cruisehalong.com/, paying US$550 including all meals and round-trip by private car. The Halong Jasmine – a magnificent 22 berth vessel – featured a huge, silk-bedecked room with bathroom, and even a little balcony with chairs. A cot was provided for Siena.

There are plenty of cruise providers who cater to Halong Bay - check with your hotel for specials for as little as US$40 per person, kids half-price. Remember, though, you get what you pay for.

The cruise: Gliding around the huge karsts jutting from Halong Bay was a surreal and breathtaking experience. Some peaks were virtually conical and the family climbed one such peak with a gazebo at the top, providing impressive 360 degree views. The junk cruised into small fishing villages and there were optional side trips such as canoeing, rowing and a cave tour (Lachlan took Siena along the cave’s walking trail in a metal-framed backpack). In warmer weather, cool down by taking a swim off the boat or from the sandy beaches.

The train ride: The Victoria Sapa Resort has their own luxury train – the Victoria Express – departing Hanoi at 9pm and arriving in Lao Cai at 5.30am. You need to be staying with the hotel to use this service, and can book this through their website (from US$115 return, 45-minute car ride to the hotel from US$10 per person).

The mountain retreat: Sapa is famed for its cool climate and pristine environment, and is home to more than thirty traditional hill tribes. Both families went on affordable local tours that take in the glorious natural and cultural scenery around town, with a veritable animal farm including cows lolling in people’s houses, and pigs and water buffalo on the lime green, rice-terraced hills.

Noodle time: Street food in Hanoi is of excellent quality and the family enormously enjoyed the fresh and dazzling variety of dishes. Their favorite spot was Quan An Ngon (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, tel +84 4 942 8162), with a leafy outdoor area and plenty of places to sit. Dishes are no more than US$2, with delectable creations like beef noodle soup (pho), which the kids devoured. The Jacksons also loved the Green Tangerine, a French restaurant in a Colonial house in the Old Quarter (48 Hang Be, tel +84 4 825 1286, 9am-11pm). On the streets, Johanna recommends only eating well-cooked food. With its French colonial history, Hanoi’s baguettes and other breads are superb. The food aboard the junk cruise was magnificent, including lashings of seafood, and the crew happily made extra kid-friendly foods for Siena.

Money: Most vendors accept US dollars, making trading much easier as one US dollar equals almost 16,000 Vietnam dong!

The seasons: The north and mountains of Vietnam can get quite cold in winter, and even the mid-regions can be cool. The family recommend going between spring and autumn for the best weather and greenest scenery. For Saigon and the far south, they recommend winter.

Best tips: Both families really enjoyed the convenience of taking an ayi with them on this trip; many Beijing ayis can easily obtain a Vietnamese visa. The families took portable DVD players and (having lived in Cambodia) always take Imodium and the antibiotic Norofloxin when traveling to south east Asian countries. Check if your vaccinations are up-to-date before going.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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